Review of The Papers of George Washington: Retirement Series, volumes 1 – 4
The Journal of Southern History
Reviewed by Charles Royster
These four volumes of The Papers of George Washington cover the two years and nine months of Washington’s retirement. Soon after leaving the presidency, Washington said that he did not expect ever again to go more than twenty miles from his home at Mount Vernon. His role in the expansion of the army of the United States in 1798 during conflict with France–and in factional struggles within the Federalist party–interrupted his search for “rest, & composure” (Vol. 4, p. 276). Washington’s sudden death on December 14, 1799, cut short the “Agricultural and rural pursuits” to which he had intended to devote himself (Vol. 1, p. 142). The fourth volume closes with two accounts of Washington’s last illness and death written by his secretary Tobias Lear. It is characteristic of his lifetime of self-control that Washington’s last action was to take his own pulse (Vol. 4, p. 545).
Washington was not a man of great wealth, as he is sometimes portrayed. Worries about money and about the deterioration of his house at Mount Vernon preoccupied him. He and his wife owned more slaves than they could put to work farming, as many as 317 (Vol. 4, p. 494, note 2). His extensive landholdings did not yield much in sales or rents, and for years he tried to convert them into cash in order to derive an income from interest. The last year of his presidency coincided with the collapse of America’s speculative land boom, and sales were even more difficult. He had thought that real estate in the nation’s new capital would be a lucrative investment, but the District of Columbia took shape very slowly. On the value of these city lots, he wrote: “it is a question of very equivocal solution” (Vol. 3, p. 57).
The twenty-seven pages explicating Washington’s last will and testament and its accompanying schedule of property is one of the most impressive pieces of editorial annotation yet accomplished by The Papers of George Washington. The editorial notes for the will and schedule offer a brief retrospective of Washington’s whole career as a planter, investor, husband, kinsman, and slaveholder. Washington’s will may be best known for stipulations freeing his slaves upon his widow’s death. It also provided for support of the old and infirm, with tenancy or apprenticeship for the rest. The will’s provisions revealed that Washington had thought much about both the value and the disposition of his property. W.W. Abbot, the editor emeritus of The Papers of George Washington who has spent part of his own retirement editing these volumes, rightly says that the will yields “insight into the workings of his mind and the impulses of his heart” (Vol. 4, p. 478).
Three of the series of The Papers of George Washington are now complete. Perhaps another twenty-five volumes–covering the last six years of the Revolutionary War and the last five years of Washington’s presidency–are lying ahead. The clarity, economy, and precision of the series make this project a monument worthy of the man.
Louisiana State University
Royster, Charles. Review of The Papers of George Washington: Retirement Series, Volumes 1-4 in The Journal of Southern History, volume 66, 855-56.